I got the email this morning. Sitting predawn on the chilly tile of our bathroom floor in a hotel, I read it in the brief window of spotty Internet access I could eke out here in Cambodia.  I was unprepared for what lay beneath my friend’s subject line, “Sad News.”

The email was not an easy read.

This post won’t be much easier.

She wrote to tell me that her friend’s son — a beautiful, golden child, not yet school age — had died.  This child, a living cherub in the local news images, a whole universe packed into roundness and dimples in his parents’ hearts, had lost his life in an inexplicable and crushing blow of fate.

(I nearly wrote here, “in one of those inexplicable and crushing blows of fate, ” but that would have been crass, horrible.  That bad choice of words would have plopped this unique tragedy in some generic slot in a parade of what an onlooker might consider “similar” stories of blows of fate.  But no matter how incessant the procession of tragic losses might seem, not a one is ever merely “one of those.” Loss is unique the way life is. Death, like DNA, is one-of-kind, ultimate, defining.)

It takes only seconds to read the first few sentences of my friend’s email, then to click on the link to the local news story (and to click it off because I cannot bear it), then to reread the sentence that describes what happened, close my eyes so I can breathe, then reopen them to reread that hellish, impossible sentence about the death — the death sentence — a third time. By then, a physical change has overtaken me and my teeth have begun chattering. I lean my head against the wall, holding quite still as the thoracic compression sets in.

Then I allow myself to slide — dive headlong, really — down, down deep. Toward bedrock.

Down there where things are thickly layered with meaning, my thoughts fire in a thousand directions. I am thinking of the family of this boy, imagining, mostly, the parents. As I think of them, I am also remembering. I see flashes and hear phrases of the local television news footage of our own son’s accident, how the spot was squashed between shrill commercials for used cars and pioneer day firework displays. How strangers with synthetic voices were speaking my son’s name, the name we had given him, which naming was the first step we parents took in claiming new life as our stewardship. As ours.

I re-felt the confusion: we had never been contacted about a television station’s right to speak his name, to speak of this accident at all, to put on the airwaves precipitous details that were misleading and false, that there was an unrecognizable photo of him, my son, filling a screen. That I watched stone still but inwardly crazed: Who took that shot? And who gave it?

And then that moment when, just hours removed from an ICU where I had watched my son die, I took in the terrible truth that, as dead, my boy was now common property.  Common. Generic. “One of those.”

On my hotel bathroom floor and feeling the solidity of bedrock under my spirits, I think more of this family, strangers to me but also new enlistees in this sorrowful procession of tragic losses, and wonder if the parents have even seen that news flash, or if they have been able to open their eyes to each new day as life keeps dawning, insisting upon itself. If they have been able to take a bite of food for days.  Or drink something.  If they are standing up without their knees buckling, or if, at 2:00 a.m., they are walking their now-alien neighborhood streets barefoot and in their pajamas, tearless — the tears having stopped for this one hour — yet gulping for air.

Then the others. I start seeing them.  The child who fell off of his father’s lap and under the wheels of heavy farm equipment.  And that other one, an only child, ill for most of his eight years of life with leukemia, who toppled off the edge of an apartment balcony after he said he needed more air. The one riding her birthday bicycle while the proud family trailed her in their car, close enough to see her wave back at them just as a sideway blast of a moving vehicle hit her, killing her instantly.

The child who did not revive from the coma after a fall from a skateboard. The whiz-kid downhill skier who hit a tree and expired there in the snow.  The other, shot point blank and at close range by another child in a neighbor’s basement.  The one found in his bed, drowned in a shallow pool of his own vomit. The cheerleader whose bulimic habit culminated in a fatal heart attack in a public bathroom.

The teenager whose headaches weren’t from too much reading, but from an aggressive brain tumor.  The twenty-something who lost control of her car. The one who, while serving his mission, was intentionally run over by a car. The other missionaries whose gas space heater put them into a sleep from which they did not awaken. The girl who collapsed on a church hike. The seven-year-old who choked on Halloween candy but no one saw in time, since her gagging was hidden behind her Sleeping Beauty mask. She went unconscious then died on her own front lawn while the other children watched, thinking she was just playing her part.

The infant neglected by the babysitter. The lacrosse star who one moment, was laughing at a sitcom and the next just stopped breathing.  The one who slipped on ice. The other who fell through. And the one who drowned in a hidden whirlpool the locals call “The Meat Grinder,” but a foreigner like himself only knew as the place where his classmate was trapped and would die if someone didn’t try to get him out.

With that funeral march crossing my thoughts, I am hearing afresh the litany of questions that play and replay and loop like slow accompanying music all around these one-of-a-kind stories of loss. They are heavy, both the cosmic questions and the life-and-death stories, and what I am certain of is that the final word on both is not given in this little sliver of existence we call mortality. While people in their zeal and habit for efficiency will inevitably offer lite answers to the heavy questions, our ears might hear them, but our hearts need not heed them. It has been my experience that heaven alone answers the heavy questions.

To speak to the heaviness of loss, I include the following poem.  Its title is the Hebrew term for the first phase of formal mourning which, according to Jewish tradition, is the week between death and burial.  My own experience was hardly so tidy.  That first week was indeed intense and irretrievable —an incubator for revelation — but far heavier mourning lasted for months on end, and the aching has spiked at times over the years.  Now, at five years from the zero point, there are moments — a day or so — when I simply fold down. Or there might be a morning when I am sitting on a bathroom floor in Cambodia and get word of another tragedy. Then it’s boulders in the soul-pockets and I sink right down to bedrock all over again.

This poem I wrote between Christmas and New Year’s of 2007/2008.  That year, we did not want be in Munich where Parker was to have come to us and prepare for his mission departure slated for February. So we were in Utah at his gravesite, which, like all of Utah, had suffered an early winter so his ice-encrusted mound had no tall marble marker yet.  Just a moon to spotlight the empty space. Otherwise, it was the most insignificant rise of earth in all of Utah.

Just one of those, you know?



Heavier than Something is Nothing.

Gravity-like, Nothing drives to the ground, leveling

Compressing, leaning with ghostly force upon the upright

(Or the bent or the already broken) reducing,

Grinding cheekbone flat into bedrock.

Louder than Presence is Absence,

Its throbbing thickness a vacuumy summing behind the eyes.



For size, Loss is more sweeping than any found

Thing beyond price or words.

(Words, with their toothpicked approximations.)

Dearth, more impenetrable than lead.

Death, more devouring than light.

Tonight the crook of my pale arm strains under the weight of emptiness:

Mass, Abyss, Anvil, Black.

Tonight my muteness rasps along

This night sky hung like three-hundred-sixty degrees blown glass

vaulted vacancy

Drilled through with one insouciant marbled moon

Or the white point punctuating black flatness, pinning infinity in place,

Demarcating this spatial phraseology of blank verse.

Threatening, gaping,

Big and billowing oxygen, enough to suffocate as

I crouch on this graveyard dirt,

Yoke’s edge cutting into the nape of my neck,

Hands over my head in submission.

All this cosmos.

Every endless inch empty of my child.

Let me say it now or

Hold my bluegray breath in silence,

Hands high, head low,

Cupped on every side in black.

I am parentheses.


© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

8 thoughts on “Aninut

  1. Oh. My heart hurts.

    Of all the speakable and unspeakable agonies (and we all know the unspeakable are often hardest), I believe the death of a child is the very very worst. I don’t think I could survive it. I honor you and others who have and the tremendous light you’ve been able to share.

    But couldn’t we please call a truce with the universe and have not one more child die? Not one more set of empty arms? Not one more morsel of hurt and betrayal? I hear people worry about the Second Coming but I’m shouting ‘bring it on!’

  2. Michelle, but you would have no choice but survive the loss. And love would fuel that survival. Although you would perhaps hate and resent the fact that you are still alive, (and maybe that for a long, bruising stretch), your love for your other children, your husband, and more than anything, for God and God’s huge love-hungry human family would fuel your survival. And since the death—and life— of a Child is the axis around which this universe turns, there is somehow a hidden and regenerating hope.

    Your observation about “the worst loss” is crucial. Those words are even the title of a book about parental bereavement, and I recall reading that volume while comforting another friend who was surviving a divorce that shredded not only her heart, but a whole circle of family relationships. Can I look her in the eye and tell her that her loss is somehow “not as bad” as mine? How can I know? How can anyone know? I think it was Elder Maxwell who wrote that only He who bore the cross can judge the difference between all other crosses. All loss is hard, and major loss is humanly unbearable. Only God’s love can bear it. I thank God for that lightening and that light.

    I am so grateful you stop in here, friend.

  3. Oh, sweet Melissa. Whenever I feel the need for a dose of eternal perspective, I think of you. I long to undo the loss you have experienced. Every time I drive past Portneuf Medical Center, I say a prayer for Parker. I wish this month and that place did not have to be associated with such sadness, but I will forever be grateful for the wonderful blessing your family has been in my life. You have taught me what it means to grieve with faith. As I drive home tomorrow, I will pray, I will cry and I will express gratitude for wonderful you.

    • Emily, those are loving words. Thank you so much. Yes, this is a hard month and yes, Idaho is a hard place for me, given the associations, but these dark associations also carry with them the tinge of light from all the goodness gained in the learning. You are part of that ongoing goodness. Thank you always.

  4. All our “parentheses” have different empty centers. Thank you, Melissa and Elder Maxwell, for the thought that grief doesn’t need to invite comparison. The experience of empty arms or empty souls has priceless value. I think that as much as we hate going through pain, we can’t deny the sweetness of growth that is possible if we feel all of it. And then let it refine us. And if we share it with others, as you graciously do, Melissa.

    • Thank you, Lori, for understanding “parentheses” and for responding here with such eloquent empathy. And thank you for turning the focus to Elder Maxwell who, like the true disciple of Christ he was and is, spoke of the pain and irony of bitter loss without drawing attention to himself. Always to Him Whose love and grief are beyond degree, as the hymn says.
      So glad to find you here, friend!

  5. I was directed to your writings last night after finishing a Stake Choir rehearsal that I am conducting. I was sharing with the members of the choir my gratitude for having the balance of these incredible rehearsals, singing music that speaks to my heart, to balance the obstacles of this time of year for me.
    I am just one week shy of 5 years since I lost my beautiful Madeline Rose who was exactly 18 1/2, a freshman at BYU, and also working on mission papers. She died just two days before Thanksgiving In a traveling accident that nearly took my son’s life as well.
    To stumble upon your post when you were at five years,(when I didn’t have time to get lost in the abyss of grief yet again), was a beautiful gift this morning. I love the tender tutorials that come to shift perspective.
    I wanted to reach out and thank you for giving a voice to the journey. I read everything I could get my hands on about grief and near death experiences in the months that followed Madeline’s death.
    I was directed clearly by the spirit to also write about my journey, which was a laughable joke to me in the middle of the night on Thanksgiving. Lack of sleep had eluded my mental capacities as I was in Las Vegas, in a hospital with a son who’s prognosis was undetermined and a funeral was being planned for some future date yet to be determined. I had children and grandchildren at home in Houston, eating a dinner provided by ward members, wondering how my holidays had been hijacked into this nightmare.
    Writing about my journey was just part of the twisted nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from, as my last english class was in High School so writing wasn’t something I ever wanted or intended to do in any public forum. But the direction was clear. and I have found that as a musician it was just a transfer of music to words.
    Speaking of words, are there really any words that can describe the “matter unorganized” that is left behind when one existence stops and another instantly immerges?
    I haven’t found words that do justice, so the tutorial becomes so very personal as the attempt was made.
    Thank you again for reaching into my soul this morning with a true gift of writing.

    • Dear JoLynn-
      Ah. You. Are. A. Writer. Sister,

      And I am humbled by the shock and brutality —all that chaotic, frightening “matter unorganized”— that you have absorbed like so much nourishing mulch which has fed your tree of life. Creating out of chaos is what divinity does. All construction is contingent on deconstruction. Wherever there is rubble, detritus, decay, or “matter unorganized”, there is something incubating, pulsing, almost breathing, seeking an upward tendril to the light and air. That, I sense, is what you are doing. In words—or in notes–on a line, you are organizing, shaping, creating life.
      Following this logic, then, there is no death. Death is but a station of growth, a coldening then a warming intermission where life is not seen as we’ve seen it before, but is there, nonetheless, resting and being nourished, being protected and cared for, a time when tremendous focused energy is needed to order to birth life anew.
      There is only life.
      Life is all there is.
      You are doing a God’s job by affirming and living exactly that.

      Bless you!

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